A drive through the English countryside
Long on my bucket list has been to explore the landscapes that inspired my favorite English storytellers.
As a little girl, my daydreams were filled with hobbits and wizards, Toad Hall and crazed motorcars, the Mad Hatter and magic rabbits – a dream world where beauty, adventure and peril were woven into fascinating stories. I consistently searched for hidden portals to fantasy worlds, which to the chagrin of my parents, included knocking a hole in my closet looking for Narnia.
Although I never did find a talking lion or the Shire, I did find beauty and magic on a road trip through the English countryside.
Pick a starting point.
We flew into Edinburgh and rented a car to drive south. Our plan was to spend a week driving, then fly out of London. Edinburgh was a good starting point for that. An added bonus was renting the car at one airport and the flexibility to drop it off at another.
TIP: You’ll need an international driver’s license (bring your stateside one as well). Check insurance coverage for rentals in foreign countries to see if supplemental insurance is necessary. Remember you'll be driving on the opposite side of the road from what you are accustomed to.
Map out the drive in advance and determine any “must-see” stops.
Maximize your sightseeing opportunities by mapping out drive times, cities and sights in advance. We booked hotels in advance, which ensured a stress-free week with guaranteed lodging in planned cities.
Edinburgh to Durham (138 miles)
• Meander down the northeastern seaboard, winding along picturesque hills with lovely views of the sea.
• Sights: Alnwick Gardens are spectacular, and if you reserve in advance, you can have lunch in the Treehouse Restaurant (yes it’s actually in the trees!). There is also the Alnwick Castle (where several Harry Potter scenes were filmed), and the Poison Garden.
• Detour through Northumberland National Park on your way to Durham, and see Hadrian’s Wall, also the inspiration for “the Wall” in Game of Thrones — or simply drive straight through, and enjoy the walkable city of Durham, with its lovely market square, cathedral and castle.
Durham market center and chapel
Durham to York (74 miles)
• Wind your way through idyllic country roads to York, established in 71 A.D.
• Sights: York is a walled city, with large stretches of its ancient Roman wall still intact for exploring, framing a walkway on both sides of the River Ouse. Along with a stunning 13th century Gothic Cathedral (York Minister), York has a delightfully funky section called the Shambles. Once host to butchers and fishmongers, buildings were built close together with eaves overhanging the alleys to keep meat from spoiling in the sun. It still remains a bustling shopping area. Also check out these neat little pubs: Evil Eye, House of the Trembling Madness and the Blue Bell.
The Shambles, York
York to Derbyshire (86 miles)
• Continue south to the English moors. Take a detour through Peak National Park, one of the most beloved in the U.K. TIP: The Breadsall Priory, established around 1266, is now a delightful hotel nestled on 300 acres in the countryside. For extra fun, ask the front desk where the pet cemetery is on this allegedly haunted property.
The Breadsall Priory, Derbyshire
Derbyshire to the Cotswolds (104 miles)
• Hands-down, my favorite leg of the trip was arriving in the Cotswolds. This is quintessential storybook England, with meandering canals, duck ponds and quaint bridges. Given the chance, I’d come back and stay here a full week.
• Sights: Stonehenge is nearby, as is Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s home town), the spa town of Cheltenham (where we stayed) and Bourton-on-the-Water. Dubbed the “Venice of the Cotswolds,” Bourton is packed with picturesque charm.
Cotswolds to Cambridge (144 miles)
• Cambridge (like Oxford) is comprised of 31 colleges. Many are open for viewing; some charge an entrance fee, while others are free. King’s College (and its chapel), the Trinity College Gatehouse and St. John’s are among the most popular sights. Alternatively, see the city from the River Cam in a punt boat. Quench your thirst at the Eagle, the bar where U.S. Armed Forces servicemembers signed the ceiling and left their uniform patches during WWII.
TIP: View an 18th century prank at the Trinity Gatehouse. At the Great Gate, look up and find the statue of Henry VIII (the college’s founder). At one time, he held a sword and scepter, until the sword was stolen and replaced with a chair leg.
No matter how you get here, England is an ideal country for a spectacular road trip!
Photos by Kristi Adams